Stem Cells On Mars: Pimping Your Paper And Sexy Science

I have found evidence of stem cells on Mars!

Actually, I haven’t, but what if I took pictures of Martian soil with my trusty microscope and claimed that certain formations were fossilized stem cells…and somehow I published that sexy paper? And what if I really believed it were true, but alas I was wrong?

What would be the consequences?

I admit that sexy papers get my attention.

Like most scientists, I am drawn to exciting ideas, but do sexy papers have a positive or negative overall influence on science?

The electronic interactions between scientists and journals these days is akin to online dating, and scientists are pimping their papers (meaning dressing them up as sexy) more than ever to editors.

A mentor of mine once told me what he believed to be an axiom of science:

the higher profile a paper and the higher impact the journal it is in, the more likely the findings in said paper are wrong.

This seems paradoxical at first and I don’t believe it to be universally true, but sometimes it is accurate.

When I say “sexy” papers, most scientists know what I mean. These are papers that make big splashes and almost seem meant to attract a lot of attention.

The titles of such papers are most often simple, clear cut, and make a strong claim…a sexy claim.

And editors love those sexy papers, don’t they?

Why?

Sexy papers draw attention to the journal and are more likely than not to be high impact, boosting the journal’s impact factor.

There have been quite a few sexy papers in the last few years have been in the hot field of stem cell research. Perhaps then it is no surprise that the number of journals specifically focused thematically on stem cells has grown dramatically.

Of course sometimes sexy papers are truly sexy with no pimping or primping required and the conclusions they present are correct!  One of my favorite papers of the year in the stem cell field published in the awesome journal, Cell Stem Cell, fits this category on making induced pluripotent stem cells using miRNA. Sexy paper, fantastic science, rigorous data. These authors did a fantastic job. No pimping required.

More generally, why might the sexy papers in any field including stem cell research have a higher than average risk of coming to not entirely correct conclusions?

There are many reasons.

First of all, sexy papers are by their very nature going out on a limb to make a riskier than average claim. The authors are saying something exciting and perhaps even controversial. This inherently means that such papers are at a higher risk of making claims that later turn out to be non-reproducible.

Second, nobody likes to get scooped and this means that everyone is in a rush to publish, especially when it comes to a potentially very novel finding. Rushing science is kind of like rushing boiling an egg: you can do it, but you made end up with a runny yolk all over your hands.

Wrong or not in the long run, these papers get a huge number of readers and citations. The expression “sex sells” may more often be associated with magazines or TV or movies, but surely it applies just as strongly to science.

Another major down side to super sexy science and papers is that they set a climate in which outstanding, technically immaculate papers that are deemed “not sexy enough” by a limited number of human brains may suffer by comparison. Authors of such less-sexy papers may find it difficult to publish in certain journals.  The average time from the paper being first submitted to actually being published is undoubtedly much longer for less-sexy papers versus very sexy papers. The authors are more likely to get scooped, not get funding, and maybe even jump off a cliff.

However, I believe that sexy papers play an undeniably important role in science. They promote new ideas and I think stimulate creativity.

A provocative question comes to mind.

If the authors of a very sexy paper did all the science correctly (no misconduct) and came to a very sexy conclusion, but in the end it turns out their conclusion was wrong, is that necessarily bad for science?

“Of course it is bad!” is the answer that first jumps to my mind, but perhaps that is overly simplistic. While it is true that publication of something that later turns out to be not quite right could lead other researchers astray with an idea that turns out to be not quite right, doesn’t this happen all the time in science already?

The reality is that sometimes even the best scientists “get it wrong” with some conclusions and that is part of the journey toward getting it right. The path to discovery is littered with mistakes and wrong hypotheses.

Another question is whether a scientist make their relatively moderately novel set of data into a super sexy paper?

Can they pimp it ?

I think so.

The authors can chose a simple, but provocative title with no qualifications. They can push it at a high-impact journal and try to sell it to the editor with a glowing cover letter. If they are a bigwig, they can use their clout to sell the paper to the editor.

Sometimes all of this likely still fails and the paper does not end up in a high-profile journal, but clearly a surprisingly large amount of the time it works and gets published.

One risk for them that their work will be repudiated and found to be non-reproducible.

There is also a trend away from the obsession with sexiness with online open access journals such as PLoS ONE and many others that judge papers based on scientific and experimental quality rather than by some arbitrary notions about novelty.

What does all this mean for science? Sexy science still sells, but is it good for research? Does it accelerate the pace of discovery or hinder it by pushing story lines that turn out to be incorrect?

What do you think?

(this article was first published by me at Science 2.0 http://www.science20.com/confessions_stem_cell_scientist/stem_cells_mars_pimping_your_paper_and_seduction_sexy_science-82128)

2 Comments


  1. BTW, the art design of PLOS ONE is appealing to me when I was a sophomore tying to read sci-paper. Scientific researches or papers are not that sexy, but the corresponding report published in certain public journals, like New York Times.


  2. Wonderful article. I think you are right on about the pimp factor in sexy articles. I think it is bad for research because competition will create ever increasing pressure on researchers to out-sex each other. It is a slippery slope.

    Just as in the evolution of technology towards open source, I think life science will also take a pivotal turn in the same direction. In our hyper connected society, truth in science can be quickly validated via open crowd source by the scientific community. Open access journals like PLoS will democratize scienctific progress. All truths should surface faster than it does today.

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